Los Angeles

Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, Craig Kauffman and Peter Alexander

UCLA Art Galleries

UCLA’s exhibition, Transparency, Reflection, Light, Space: Four Artists, reveals, sometimes inadvertently, almost all that is at once strong and frail about Los Angeles art. The show is fittingly (for a university facility) a kind of crash course in the thrust of recent art-thinking: a super problem-solving process (problems of consciousness, not one color or shape against another) whose products run the gamut from Larry Bell’s still-fantastic object, to Robert Irwin’s stairwell (“activated . . . perceptually with as little event or object as possible”). All of it deals with the title categories and all of it is quite distant, cerebral, laboratoried and expressionless (in the sense that the artist seeks out not personal, but sensory-philosophical questions; looking at the show one might believe people live forever, without bowel movements). Pastel, selfless, vaguely optimistic, up-to-date, deft, and depending on one’s “set,” extremely trivial or magnificently profound. However, there are the usual things to take up with the management. First, nowhere (in the tight little hardbound catalog) is the exact origin of the show indicated; it is billed as “arranged by” the four artists, implying their takeover of curatorial functions. I mean, it makes at least a small difference whether the artists are so close that they came to Dr. Wight and said, “This is what we’re about and we want to do a group number,” or UCLA said, “This is what it’s about, so we’ll pick the best and do a show.” Second, the catalog essays are interviews, with the thought that “self-criticism is more interesting than criticism”; maybe so, but it’s also less concise, more circuitous and rambling, and, since artists put most of their energies into works rather than explanations, less enlightening. After a while the multisyllables sound like a loosely played zither to the sub-verbalizing mind and, after an initial annoyance over another cute stunt, I began to see the point in Bell’s omitting all the vowels from his answers. There are some nice ideas, e.g., the 17th-century origins of the artist’s alienation (“Design replaced him as a kind of helpmate for technology,”) but they’re vitamin bits secreted in the kind of fat a good editor can boil away. Third, although the installation was more a matter of logistics than style, the presence of big, raised-letter spotlighted nameplates was annoying.

Irwin’s stairwell is by far the most ambitious work because in this crowd it is the least material (material meaning “gear” or “glass” or “plastic”) and takes the most chances: the dense, translucent net fitted over the staircase to divert the changing sunlight, gives one almost nothing, and demands the viewer work for sensation (which leads to thinking about looking and being, which is, I think, part of Irwin’s point). Larry Bell’s large sheets of tinted glass, abutted in an L-plan, are set in a tailored space and are electro-chemically coated so that the outward edges are, gradually, slightly frosted. One walks around the piece and sees, in the interior angle, one’s reflection(s) following along and, on the exterior sides, a progressively evaporating mirror-image, or none at all, and various like phenomena. It’s the least severe, most popular and accessible piece and seems to offer, in contrast to Irwin’s work especially, the least to think about. Craig Kauffman constitutes the West Coast end of the newly formed (by Robert Morris) “Peripatetic Artists Guild” and announces that he is willing and able to discharge commissions involving things like surfing movies, indoor or outdoor lighting, alternative life styles and magic (this declaration is part of the catalog, so, taking Kauffman at his word, my recount is not facetious). In this ambience Kauffman has constructed a series of water troughs running 30 feet along a wall; the water’s surface is agitated by small, baldly visible electric fans and the activated pattern is then reflected, by means of overhead spots, onto the length of the wall, appearing like a mix of a geologic section and an electrocardiogram. I’m sure Kauffman, heretofore a superb craftsman, is aware of. the ordinariness of his exoticism, the allusions to Sonnier and others, and the overpopulation of the neighborhood of artists “concerned with” ephemeral works, performances, raw equipment, etc. As regards Peter Alexander’s two pieces, one eleven-part and one five-segment sculpture of colored, shallow-curve-surfaced resin bars in closely calibrated blues and yellow-to-pink, I must admit I liked the hunch that his things, simple sculpture hung on nails, might outstrip everything else requiring lots of Teaching Assistant carpentry and operating budget. The works do make the wall disappear, make the bars float out fully a foot, maybe two, toward the onlooker, and set up incredible chromatic vibrations among themselves. But Alexander’s decision to enter just two normal groupings and thus stay closer to Irwin’s macrobiotic visual toughness, may have made this more difficult, though, as sculpture, they do retain their quality.

Peter Plagens